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What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Syphilis can cause long-term complications and/or death if not adequately treated.

How common is syphilis?

During 2010, there were 45,834 new cases of syphilis, compared to 48,298 estimated new diagnoses of HIV infection and 309,341 cases of gonorrhea. Of syphilis cases, 13,774 were of primary and secondary (P&S) syphilis, the earliest and most transmissible stages of syphilis. During the 1990s, syphilis primarily occurred among heterosexual men and women of racial and ethnic minority groups; during the 2000s, however, cases increased among men who have sex with men (MSM). In 2002, rates of P&S syphilis were highest among men 30–39 years-old, but by 2010, were highest among men 20–29 years-old. This epidemiologic shift reflects increasing cases reported among young MSM in recent years. MSM accounted for two thirds (67%) of all P&S syphilis cases in 2010.

Black, Hispanic, and other racial/ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by P&S syphilis in the United States, with black Americans accounting for most of P&S syphilis among individuals who are not MSM.

While the rate of congenital syphilis (syphilis passed from pregnant women to their babies) has decreased in recent years, 3 more cases of congenital syphilis are reported in the United States than cases of perinatal HIV infection. During 2010, 377 cases of congenital syphilis were reported, compared to an estimated 162 cases of perinatal HIV infection. Congenital syphilis rates were 12.3 times and 3.1 times higher among infants born to black and Hispanic mothers (33.1 and 8.4 cases per 100,000 live births, respectively) compared to white mothers (2.7 cases per 100,000 live births).

How do people get syphilis?

Syphilis is transmitted from person to person by direct contact with a syphilitic sore, known as a chancre. Chancres occur mainly on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum. Chancres also can occur on the lips and in the mouth. Transmission of syphilis occurs during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Pregnant women with the disease can transmit it to their unborn child.

How quickly do symptoms appear after infection?

The average time between infection with syphilis and the start of the first symptom is 21 days, but can range from 10 to 90 days.

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